The Perfect Trip to Yorkshire for Lonely Planet Traveller magazine, featuring visits to the Brontë’s family home in Haworth, the Three Peaks in Ribblesdale, the historic breweries of Masham, the dramatic coastline around Whitby and the little-explored North York Moors, one of the UK’s most under-rated national parks. The article has since been syndicated worldwide.
On a related subject, I also recently wrote an online travel guide for the Lake District published by The Telegraph.
Project description: 16pp travel feature
Client: Lonely Planet Traveller
Publication Date: November 2012
Haworth – best for Brontës
Haworth is near the southeastern edge of the Yorkshire Dales, 20 miles’ drive from Leeds.
It’s half an hour before opening at Haworth’s Brontë Parsonage Museum, and the house’s corridors are unusually quiet – save for the tick-tock of a grandfather clock, the occasional creak of a wooden floor and the twitter of thrushes in the trees outside. At the front, gabled windows look over cobbled lanes and the village churchyard; from the rear, the view is altogether wilder, revealing windswept heath, dry-stone walls and a moody, iron-grey sky.
‘It’s a privilege to be in the house when it’s quiet like this,’ notes Pat Berry, a lifelong Brontë enthusiast who now works at the museum as a curator and guide. ‘This is when you experience the house as the sisters would have known it. Sometimes, I can almost hear the scratch of their pens coming from the rooms upstairs.’
England has many artistic landmarks, but few can match the literary cachet of Haworth. This quiet Yorkshire village was where the three best-known of the Brontë sisters – Anne, Charlotte and Emily – were born, lived and penned their most famous works, including Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wuthering Heights.
The village is inextricably linked with the sisters’ work: their books are full of locations from the village, and it’s thought that they modelled many of their characters on its residents. A short walk across the moors is the famous waterfall where they gathered for picnics and alfresco reading sessions; further on is the ruined farmstead of Top Withens, supposedly the model for Heathcliff’s house in Wuthering Heights.
‘The girls lived nearly their entire lives here, so really their whole world was Haworth,’ Pat explains. ‘It’s only once you’ve visited that you realise what an important part the village, and Yorkshire generally, plays in their work. It makes you view the books in an entirely different way.’
She opens the door into the parsonage’s parlour, where the sisters worked together at wooden writing palettes, exchanging ideas, discussing themes and reading their latest passages. Upstairs, the bedrooms are filled with their furniture, clothes and possessions: in one cabinet is a set of miniscule books they wrote as children, filled with spidery scrawl that’s only legible through a magnifying glass.
Sadly, the sisters’ own story had a tragic ending. Anne, Emily and their brother Branwell died within eight months of each other between 1848 and 1849. Charlotte followed six years later, soon after marrying the village curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls.
But the Brontës’ early deaths only seem to have intensified their readers’ fascination: Haworth has become a place of pilgrimage, and each year thousands of people flock to the village to wander the lanes, the moors and settle in for tea in one of its cafés.
‘This place gives us a wonderful insight into the sisters’ lives,’ Pat says, as visitors begin to file through the parsonage’s front door, many clutching dog-eared copies of the Brontës’ novels. ‘They were so close to each other that we really shouldn’t view each book in isolation. In one way, they’re all chapters in a larger story.’
Ribblesdale – best for walking
Ribblesdale runs for several miles along the western edge of the Dales. Horton-in-Ribblesdale is about six miles north of Settle, or 35 miles north of Haworth via the A65.
‘That’s it – we’re all set!’ announces Sylvia Grieve, as she stamps her boots, adjusts her backpack and takes a last swig of tea. Around her, the other members of the Preston & District Walking Club are getting ready for the day’s hike: water bottles are filled, jackets are zipped and bootlaces tied, and a few of the walkers plot out the route ahead on a well-thumbed Ordnance Survey map, their breath clouding in the morning air.
‘There’s nothing better than being out early on the hills,’ smiles Sylvia, pulling a telescopic walking pole from one of her backpack pockets. ‘I’ve been hiking here for 30 years, and I still get excited every time I put on my boots. I mean, just look at that view,’ she exclaims. ‘No wonder they call this God’s Own County!’
She gestures across the Ribble Valley where a fuzzy sun is rising above the hilltops, tinting the land in olive greens, fox-fur oranges and chestnut browns. In the distance, two squat peaks brood on the ridgeline, their summits wreathed in cloud: the mountains of Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent which, along with nearby Whernside, make up Yorkshire’s three highest peaks. ‘I don’t think we’ll be tackling those today though,’ she chuckles, half-grimacing at the thought. ‘I think I’d need a few more cups of tea for that.’
While Sylvia and her team are planning a more modest stroll, there are plenty of other walkers who have already set out on Yorkshire’s most formidable hike: the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge, in which participants must conquer the summits of all three mountains in 12 hours or fewer. Covering 24.5 miles and several thousand feet of ascent, it’s a formidable proposition, although that doesn’t seem to deter the thousands who visit the valley every year to put their hiking mettle to the test.
The traditional starting point is the Pen-y-Ghent Café in the hamlet of Horton-in-Ribblesdale, where an antique clock allows walkers to stamp their start and finish times. Those who complete the route in the allotted time are officially admitted to the Three Peaks of Yorkshire Club, a coveted badge of honour for every self-respecting British walker. The record time for the route is an astonishing two hours, 29 minutes and 53 seconds, set by local fell-runner Jeff Norman in 1974 and still never bettered.
‘Oh yes, I’ve already done the Three Peaks twice,’ says Sylvia matter-of-factly, apparently unfazed by her advanced years. ‘In fact, I’m planning to do it again soon. I rather fancy seeing in my next birthday on top of Ingleborough. That would be a grand way to celebrate, wouldn’t it?’
She chuckles, slips on a bobble-hat and tramps off down the path, watched by a flock of Ribblesdale’s resident sheep. Before long she’s disappeared, swallowed up by a patchwork of pastures and russet-red hills.
Masham – best for ale
Masham is on the east side of the Dales. The quickest route from Horton-in-Ribblesdale is north along the A684 via Aysgarth and Leyburn.
Plumes of steam are rising from the chimneys of the old Theakston’s Brewery as Jonathan Manby ties on his apron and starts work for another day. Around him are arranged all the tools of a cooper’s trade – clamps, hammers, jiggers, adzes, crozes and planes heaped on the workbench alongside iron hoops and oak staves. In the background a collage of brewery posters and beer mats lines the workshop’s walls, and a brick furnace glows orange in the gloom.
‘I’ve been a cooper for 17 years, but I’ve been drinking ale for a good deal longer,’ he says, running a spoke-shave down the edge of a half-finished keg. ‘We’ve got a tradition of brewing in Yorkshire that goes back hundreds of years, so we should know what we’re doing by now!’ He chortles gruffly, then picks up a mallet and starts to beat a hoop into shape, sending sparks cascading across the workshop’s floor.
Just east of the Yorkshire Dales, the little village of Masham has been a centre for the brewing industry since 1827, when local businessman and philanthropist Robert Theakston founded his family brewery here, attracted by the famously clear spring water, which – according to ale aficionados – gives Masham’s ales their special taste.
In its heyday during the late 19th century, the village was home to several working breweries, although now only two remain: Theakston’s and its rival Black Sheep Brewery, established in 1992 just across the village.
‘Brewing’s halfway between a science and an art, just like wine-making,’ explains Jonathan. ‘There are so many things that can affect the taste – the hops, malt and barley you use, how you roast them, how you blend them. Any idiot can follow a recipe, but to make a great beer, well, that takes proper skill!’
A hundred years ago, all Yorkshire’s breweries would have employed their own teams of coopers, but these days, the use of metal barrels has rendered their craft largely obsolete, and Jonathan is now one of only two working coopers left in Britain.
But while the technologies have moved on, the basics of the brewer’s art have hardly changed in centuries. Inside the brew-halls, malt and barley roast in giant ovens, before being fermented with yeast and flavoured with hops: it’s the combination of these ingredients that give each beer its distinctive colour, strength and flavour, from dark porters through to amber ales. This is a complex process with its own arcane language – mash tuns and worts, scuppets and roundels, sparges and hop backs – set to a constant soundtrack of rattling bottles and chugging machinery.
‘Oh aye, it’s a world of its own, is brewing!’ laughs Jonathan, as he adds the finished cask to several others piled outside the workshop’s door. ‘It’s part of our heritage. I couldn’t imagine life without ale. For me, it would be like taking away cricket and Yorkshire pudding.’
Staithes to Bempton Cliffs – best for coast
The A172 skirts along the northwestern edge of the North York Moors, then the A171 offers a scenic route across the rolling hills to Whitby.
It’s only a couple of hours after dawn, but Yorkshire’s fossil hunters are already out in force. Armed with rock hammers and magnifying glasses, they scan the beach for signs: a fissure in a rock, the sparkle of a mineral, a swirl inside a limestone shard. Slowly, the sound of tapping hammers begins to echo across the beach, mingling with the cries of gannets and the rumble of surf smashing on the shoreline.
Stretching for 45 miles along the county’s eastern border, Yorkshire’s coastline is one of Britain’s richest hunting grounds for fossil collectors, second only in prestige to Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. A combination of sandy soils, geological shifts and rapidly eroding cliffs have uncovered some of the nation’s most impressive prehistoric finds here – from giant, spiral-shaped ammonites to fossilised dinosaur footprints.
‘One of my best finds was a prehistoric crocodile,’ says Byron Blessed, a fossil collector and palaeontologist who runs a geological shop in the nearby harbour town of Whitby. ‘I saw the tip of its snout poking out of a rock, and when I looked closer, I couldn’t believe my luck. Finds like that are incredibly rare – for a fossilhunter, it’s a bit like winning the Lottery!’
He points out a few other prize discoveries inside his shop’s cabinets: a giant shark’s tooth, a trilobite the size of a dinner plate, the fossilised jawbone of a mammoth dredged up from the North Sea. ‘It’s really just a question of knowing what to look for,’ Byron continues. ‘Once you’ve learned the basics, you’d be astonished how many fossils are out there just waiting to be found.’
The Yorkshire coast’s other claim to fame is as the birthplace of the globetrotting explorer Captain Cook, who fell in love with the sea while working in a grocer’s shop in the little fishing port of Staithes, and whose childhood home in Whitby has now been turned into a museum.
Just as in Cook’s day, much of Yorkshire’s coastline is still a working landscape, home to bustling seaside resorts and big fishing fleets. But away from the harbours and coastal towns, traces of wildness still survive in many areas, from the quiet cove of Runswick Bay to the craggy Bempton Cliffs, which harbour some of Britain’s largest colonies of gannets, kittiwakes, puffins and guillemots.
For Byron, Yorkshire’s coastline is special. ‘This is one of Britain’s most important prehistoric landscapes,’ he says, turning over a huge ammonite in his hands, its polished surface glinting gently in the sunlight. ‘Every time we pick up a fossil, we’re actually looking millions of years into the past. It’s a bit like having access to your own time machine. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it.’
He grins and steps outside his shop, as clouds of chattering gulls wheel over Whitby’s granite harbour, and a fishing boat bobs slowly out across the North Sea.
North York Moors – best for wild views
Several scenic routes cross the moors to Helmsley; the drive along Blakey Ridge is arguably the most dramatic, but the A169 through Pickering is faster.
A sheen of haze hangs over the fields as Simon Bassindale’s truck trundles along a track high on the North York Moors. ‘I love this kind of weather. It’s one of the best things about the job,’ he says, tapping the ranger’s badge pinned to his chest. ‘When everyone else is indoors, I have this place pretty much to myself.’
He stops the truck, pulls out a pair of binoculars and scans the landscape, steadying his elbows against the bonnet. Around him, empty moorland stretches in every direction, dotted with shrubs and swathes of purple heather. ‘Not a bad view, eh?’ Simon says, as birds dart and weave over the heather-tops, and the honk of a wild grouse blares out from the undergrowth.
It might not be as well known as some of Britain’s National Parks, but the landscapes of the North York Moors are every bit as precious. Covering 554 sq miles of heath, valley, gorge, copse and pasture, it’s home to England’s largest remaining expanses of heather moorland – an increasingly scarce habitat that supports a huge number of native species, from butterflies, birds, mammals and reptiles to rare plants such as sphagnum moss, cotton-grass and bog rosemary.
But while the moors might seem like an untouched wilderness, in fact they’re one of the nation’s oldest managed landscapes. Prehistoric people cleared the trees and founded settlements; medieval monks built abbeys in the valleys and grazed sheep on the uplands; Victorian industrialists mined the area for minerals such as alum, jet and ironstone. The days of heavy industry are long since past, however: the North York Moors became a national park in 1952, and these days they’re largely the preserve of hikers and wildlife spotters, who come to wander the trails and visit panoramic viewpoints such as Roseberry Topping, Blakey Ridge and Sutton Bank.
‘Many of the rights of way can be traced back to the Middle Ages, and some were probably established long before that,’ Simon explains, as he strides along a rutted path, surrounded by a carpet of tangled heather. ‘But it’s important to remember that this is still fundamentally working country – and we should do everything we can to respect that.’